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Evaluating apparent competition in limiting the recovery of an endangered ungulate.

College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, 59812, USA, .
Oecologia (Impact Factor: 3.01). 07/2012; DOI: 10.1007/s00442-012-2397-6
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Predation can disproportionately affect endangered prey populations when generalist predators are numerically linked to more abundant primary prey. Apparent competition, the term for this phenomenon, has been increasingly implicated in the declines of endangered prey populations. We examined the potential for apparent competition to limit the recovery of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae), an endangered subspecies under the US Endangered Species Act. Using a combination of location, demographic, and habitat data, we assessed whether cougar (Puma concolor) predation on endangered bighorn sheep was a consequence of their winter range overlap with abundant mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). Consistent with the apparent competition hypothesis, bighorn sheep populations with higher spatial overlap with deer exhibited higher rates of cougar predation which had additive effects on adult survival. Bighorn sheep killed by cougars were primarily located within deer winter ranges, even though those areas constituted only a portion of the bighorn sheep winter ranges. We suspect that variation in sympatry between bighorn sheep and deer populations was largely driven by differences in habitat selection among bighorn sheep herds. Indeed, bighorn sheep herds that experienced the highest rates of predation and the greatest spatial overlap with deer also exhibited the strongest selection for low elevation habitat. Although predator-mediated apparent competition may limit some populations of bighorn sheep, it is not the primary factor limiting all populations, suggesting that the dynamics of different herds are highly idiosyncratic. Management plans for endangered species should consider the spatial distributions of key competitors and predators to reduce the potential for apparent competition to hijack conservation success.

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    ABSTRACT: We tested for seasonal differences in cougar (Puma concolor) foraging behaviors in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem, a multi-prey system in which ungulate prey migrate, and cougars do not. We recorded 411 winter prey and 239 summer prey killed by 28 female and 10 male cougars, and an additional 37 prey items by unmarked cougars. Deer composed 42.4% of summer cougar diets but only 7.2% of winter diets. Males and females, however, selected different proportions of different prey; male cougars selected more elk (Cervus elaphus) and moose (Alces alces) than females, while females killed greater proportions of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and small prey than males. Kill rates did not vary by season or between males and females. In winter, cougars were more likely to kill prey on the landscape as: 1) elevation decreased, 2) distance to edge habitat decreased, 3) distance to large bodies of water decreased, and 4) steepness increased, whereas in summer, cougars were more likely to kill in areas as: 1) elevation decreased, 2) distance to edge habitat decreased, and 3) distance from large bodies of water increased. Our work highlighted that seasonal prey selection exhibited by stationary carnivores in systems with migratory prey is not only driven by changing prey vulnerability, but also by changing prey abundances. Elk and deer migrations may also be sustaining stationary cougar populations and creating apparent competition scenarios that result in higher predation rates on migratory bighorn sheep in winter and pronghorn in summer. Nevertheless, cougar predation on rare ungulates also appeared to be influenced by individual prey selection.
    PLoS ONE 01/2013; 8(12):e83375. · 3.53 Impact Factor
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    Free-Ranging Dogs and Wildlife Conservation, Edited by Matthew E. Gompper, 10/2013: chapter 3: pages 69-93; Oxford University Press.

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